Incredible vistas on the Ultra-Trail Drakensburg (UTD) 2021. Photo: Jared Paisley

South Africa’s ultra-trail super-star, Ryan Sandes, raced to victory in record time in the Ultra-trail Drakensberg 100 miler (UTD160), while Stellenbosch trail athlete Amri Williamson triumphed in the women’s competition in a weekend which produced some of the finest trail competition ever seen on the continent, on some of the best trails and landscapes imaginable.

Ryan Sandes wins the UTD 100 miler, April 24, 2021. Photo: Stephen Granger

In an embarrassment of trail riches, KZN athlete, Rory Scheffer, took the honours in the 100 km, while Prodigal Khumalo and Nkosikhona Mhlakwana produced a coach and charge double, Comrades Marathon champion Ann Ashworth triumphed in her first attempt to transition from road to trail and Bianca Tarboton and Taryn King made the Cape proud with impressive double victories.

Bianca Tarboton at the Cobham bridge crossing, during the 2021 UTD. Photo: Stephen Granger

Racing started at 10 am Friday morning when 90 runners set off from the ‘highest pub in Africa’ at the Lesotho Sani Pass border-crossing and was due to end at the 45-hour cut-off of 10 am Sunday morning (April 25). Races included distances of 21 km, 32 km, 62 km, 100 km and 164 km (the “100-miler”).

Sandes underlined his class by crossing the finish line at the Premier Sani Pass resort in 22 hours 30 min 38 seconds to demolish Jock Green’s 2019 mark by over four hours and finish an hour and fourteen minutes ahead of Western Cape athlete, Grobler Basson, with Kennedy Sekhuthe, who had run within sight of Sandes for much of the first half, third, also inside the previous record.

Kennedy Sekhuthe in meditative mode moments before the start of the 2021 UTD. Photo: Stephen Granger

“I don’t know of any other race in the world with a horse and rider as the “lead vehicle”. That was an epic feature of the race,” Sandes reflected. “One of my highlights came at sunset after about 65 km, when I shared some of my chips with the shepherd rider by way of a ‘sundowner’.

“As with all hundred milers, there are always ups and downs and I had a few periods when I struggled.  Descending from Lesotho into South Africa along the ridgeline in the dark proved difficult.  The mist had come down and it was almost impossible to see the trail. I had to hold my headlamp down at my knees.

“And the last hour before sunrise is always a tough period, but the warmth of the sunrise itself proved a great antitode!

Runners snake their way across the “Berg”, during the UTD 160, April 24, 2021. Photo: Stephen Granger

“At the waterfall aid station at 99km, I was told that Kennedy was running well, so I increased my pace and opened an 8 km gap. But perhaps I used too much energy and suffered a bit afterwards.”

Sandes was adamant that you don’t need to travel overseas to race some of the best trail races on the planet.  “COVID curtailed my travel overseas, but I have always enjoyed running local races. There is so much variety in South Africa and the support from friends and family makes a huge difference.

Nkosikhona Mhlakwana (left) and coach Prodigal Khumalo, winners of the 2021 GCU62 and SDR32 respectively. Photo: Stephen Granger

Scheffer overcame a neural problem impacting his calf muscles to win the UTD100 in the most competitive race of the weekend, where the lead changed hands on several occasions. Scheffer’s early lead over close rivals Christiaan Greyling, Philip Shezi and Admire Muzopambwa was obliterated as Scheffer’s calf challenges reduced him to a walk for much of the leg between the Waterfall at 38km and Cobham Road Crossing at 50km.

One of the race favourites and former winner, Jock Green receiving medical attention after 76 km of the UTD160. Green was forced to withdraw at 99 km. Photo: Simon Pocock

Greyling, Muzopambwa and Shezi all held the lead at different stages during the race, with ‘local hero’ Shezi from Underberg looking a winner with a ten-minute lead going into the checkpoint at Drakensberg Gardens Road just 20km from the finish. But Scheffer had recovered and was running strongly and he and Greyling (both former UTD winners) overhauled a fatigued Shezi in the testing final stages.

Thumbs up from Philip Shezi, leading the 100km with 25 km to go, April 24, 2021. Photo: Stephen Granger

Scheffer won in 11:25:02 – over an hour inside the record set by French athlete Vincent Viet in 2017 – and ten minutes clear of Greyling. Shezi finished 30 minutes back in third.

Ashworth’s presence created much interest and the top road runner’s transition to trail proved a success, with an impressive win in 12:59:43 – 7 minutes inside Nicolette Griffioen’s 2019 record, albeit on a different course.  Running with her husband David, Ashworth struggled on the early technical descent from the Lesotho border post but came into her own from the Waterfall aid station when she swopped her trail shoes for her road flats.

Anne Ashworth ahead of husband David after changing to road shoes at Waterfall stop on the UTD, April 24, 2021. Photo: Stephen Granger

Upping the pace on the more runnable section of the race which followed, Ashworth moved from 14th position to fifth overall, before the “gnarly” final technical section again slowed her and she placed 7th overall.

The GCU62 (Giants Trail Uncut), run along the five-day hiking trail, saw a close contest between KZN athletes Nkosikhona Mhlakwana and Bruce Arnott and Cape Town’s Daniel Claassen, with the three together for much of the first half.  Mhlakwana, who boasts an 11th position in Comrades, opened a gap shortly before halfway, but was uncertain of his navigation and he slowed to allow his rivals to catch up and show him the way.

Nontuthuko Mghabi at the finish of the UTD GCU62, April 24, 2021. Photo: Stephen Granger

Claassen’s technical skills on the descents saw him lead on the downhill stretches in the second half, with Mhlakwana regaining the lead on the climbs.  Finally, the latter broke clear decisively on the final climb to take victory by just four minutes in 6:12:59 – 26 minutes inside Iain Peterkin’s former race record. Claassen edged out Arnott by less than two minutes to claim the runner’s-up berth.

Cape Town’s Taryn King showing impressive form up to the final 8 km when crippling cramps saw her slow dramatically and struggle through to the finish, but her 7:22:28 for 10th overall and an impressive race record, improved Landie Greyling’s 2017 mark by 28 minutes.

Prodigal Khumalo leads the SDR32 across the bridge at the final checkpoint at Cobham, April 24, 2021. Photo: Stephen Granger

Prodigal Khumalo underlined his current form with an impressive pillar to post victory in the 32km race along the Giant’s Cup trail, winning in 3:08:03, five minutes clear of Thato Kanbeli. While not at her best, by her own admission, Bianca Tarboton secured an impressive third overall to win the women’s contest in 3:22:27.

Grobler Basson approaching Black Mountain at kilometer 32 of the UTD 100 miler, April 24, 2021. Grobler finished runner-up to Ryan Sandes. Photo: Stephe Granger

Andreas Bellingan and Julia Bickel were the respective winners in the half marathon.

Story by Stephen Granger

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